Chemical Exfoliation for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide

Chemical Exfoliation for Beginners: A Comprehensive Guide

Written by: Jean Godfrey-June

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Published on: January 11, 2023

If you’re looking for noticeably smoother, more glowing and clearer skin, the secret – regardless of your skin type – is regular exfoliation. There are two types of exfoliation, chemical and physical (also called mechanical exfoliation). Both types have their benefits, but chemical exfoliants—usually combinations of acids or enzymes—dissolve dirt, dead skin cells, and other impurities in a uniform manner that leaves skin exceptionally smooth. Whether infused in refreshing cleansers, serums, masks, or peels, chemical exfoliants can vary in strength dramatically, helping with everything from extreme dryness to blackheads, improving cell turnover, uneven skin texture, dullness, and hyperpigmentation.

  1. daily cleaning


    Alpyn Beauty PlantGenius Bubbling Cleanser

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    PlantGenius Creamy Bubbling Cleanser
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  2. Daily toner


    Vintner's Daughter Active Treatment Essence

    The Vintner’s Daughter
    Active Treatment Essence
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  3. Night serum


    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Dark Spot Exfoliating Sleep Milk

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    GOOPGLOW Dark Spot Exfoliating Sleep Milk
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  4. Chemical peeling once a week


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Physical exfoliants include anything from a washcloth to a scrub that contains beads or small granules that remove dead cells manually. They are easiest to use while showering; you’ll feel instant softness the second you step out of the shower. Exfoliating too much – whether chemically or physically – can be irritating, and physical exfoliants have the potential to cause microtears in the skin. As your skin gets used to both types of exfoliation, you may be able to increase the frequency (depending on your skin type and sensitivity level).


What are the different types of chemical exfoliants?

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), fruit and flower acids, and enzymes are among the most common types of chemical exfoliants.

AHAs

AHAs are water soluble with small molecular sizes and are the strongest among chemical exfoliants. Glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, and mandelic acid are AHAs commonly used in skin care. AHAs exfoliate the top layers of skin and are best for dark spots, surface wrinkles, fine lines, uneven skin tone, and even dry skin (glycolic acid was actually originally developed to treat an extremely dry skin condition called ichthyosis).

  1. Glycolic acid and lactic acid serum


    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Dark Spot Exfoliating Sleep Milk

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  2. Glycolic acid and phytic acid tones


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  3. Lactic acid mask


    Tata Harper Radiance Mask

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    Radiation mask
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BHAs

BHAs are slightly larger molecules that are oil soluble. They penetrate the skin through oil glands and help to clean the pores. The most common BHA in skin care is salicylic acid—it’s in every formula below—which is best for blemish-prone skin where oil production is a problem.

  1. Gel-to-milk face wash
    (Doubles as a Mask)


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  2. Turmeric face wash


    Plantkos Phyto Exfoliating Cleanser

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    Phyto Exfoliating Cleanser
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  3. Face wash for those affected by the outbreak


    True Botanicals Clear Nourishing Cleanser

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  4. PHAs

    PHAs are larger molecules that are water soluble and the least irritating of the acids. Ideal for sensitive skin, PHAs exfoliate on the surface of the skin and are best at locking in moisture.

    Gentle (but effective) toner


    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Flower Acids Resurfacing Toner

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    GOOPGLOW Floral Acids
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  5. Fruit and flower acids and enzymes

    These exfoliants work by eating away at dead skin and dirt. At moderate concentrations, they are gentle and well tolerated by many skin types.

    Whipped conditioner with fruit acids


    Skin Design London Face Bath

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What are combination exfoliants?

Some of the most effective skin strengthening formulas contain both chemical and physical exfoliants, which are a good complement to each other. The chemical exfoliating agents dissolve and loosen dirt, while the physical exfoliating agents scrub it away. Combined, the two approaches optimize cellular turnover and leave the skin brighter and smoother.

  1. Facial polishing

    Glycolic acid and
    Microexfoliating minerals


    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliator

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  2. Cleanser for sensitive skin

    Cranberry enzymes and rice powder


    Tata Harper Refining Cleanser

    Tata Harper
    Refining cleanser
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  3. Cleanser for normal and all skin types

    Pomegranate enzymes and bamboo


    Fath The Resurfacing Botanical Cleanser

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    The Resurfacing Botanical Cleanser
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  4. Maybe

    Glycolic acid and rice particles


    Human Race Lotus Enzyme Exfoliator

    Human race
    Lotus Enzyme Exfoliator
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  5. Body polishing

    Hibiscus Floral Acid and
    Microexfoliating minerals


    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Microderm Instant Glow Body Polish

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What skin types are chemical exfoliants best for?

Most skin types and most skin problems can benefit from gentle regular chemical exfoliation. Not only will your skin look smoother and feel softer, but any skin treatments you use afterwards will sink more evenly into your skin and penetrate deeper; dead skin cells and dirt can act as barriers between your skin and skincare.

  1. For normal and dry skin

    Moisturizing toner with citric acid


    MAKANAI Pure Botanical Charge Lotion Toner

    MACANAI
    Pure Botanical Charge Lotion Toner
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  2. For sensitive skin

    Moisturizing cleanser with lactic acid


    Tata Harper Softening Cleanser

    Tata Harper
    Softening cleanser
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What about oily skin?

Oily skin types can typically cope with either chemical or purely physical exfoliation. If you have frequent breakouts, use chemical exfoliants to fight oil and blemishes from a deeper level in the skin; AHAs and salicylic acid are most effective. If you use a physical exfoliator, choose one with superfine particles as opposed to large, abrasive granules.

  1. Blemish-Fighting Cleanser with
    Glycolic acid


    goop Beauty G.Tox Malachite + Fruit Acid Pore Purifying Cleanser

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    Purifying cleanser

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  2. Detoxifying Charcoal Face Scrub


    Clark's Botanicals Dual Charcoal Detox

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    Dual Charcoal Detox
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How often should you exfoliate your skin?

Over-exfoliating (exfoliating too often or too intensely for your skin type) can remove the skin’s protective barrier, leaving it vulnerable to sun damage, dryness and even infection. So take it slow at first. Never use a product more often than recommended and never apply intense exfoliation in the same session. If an exfoliant ever feels uncomfortable, rinse it off immediately. If you have sensitive skin, really Be careful and patch-test any exfoliating product before applying it to your face.

To put it simply, those with less sensitive skin can exfoliate more frequently, while those who are more sensitive need less powerful formulas and less frequency overall.


What types of products should be used in an exfoliating skin care routine?

Exfoliants have the potential to leave the skin dry, so moisturize immediately if your skin needs it.

  1. Rich Cream


    Augustinus Bader The Rich Cream

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  2. Lightweight lotion


    Alpyn Beauty Triple Vitamin-C Brightening Bounce Cream

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    Triple Vitamin-C Brightening Bounce Cream
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  3. Firming facial oil


    goop Beauty GOOPGENES All-in-One Super Nutrient Face Oil

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SPF is very important after exfoliation, especially since AHAs and BHAs can make skin more sensitive to the sun.

Vitamin C is one of the most beneficial and researched antioxidants for the skin to boost glow, refine texture and offer protection against environmental stressors. It’s well tolerated by most skin types, but if you’re sensitive, use it carefully after exfoliating, as vitamin C itself is a mild exfoliator.


  1. Grown Alchemist Natural Hydrating Sunscreen SPF 30

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    Natural moisturizing sunscreen SPF 30
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  2. goop Beauty GOOPGLOW 20% Vitamin C + Hyaluronic Acid Glow Serum

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What is the best time of day to exfoliate your face?
Does your skin need time to recover?

Because chemical exfoliants can make the skin more sensitive to the sun, they are best applied at night. Physical exfoliants can be used morning or evening (as long as you wear sunscreen during the day). When exfoliating, be sure to apply the formula to clean skin to prevent makeup or dirt from being pushed deeper, as well as to allow the product to really penetrate.


How do we test pure beauty products at goop? First, they must pass our standards for clean (goop has some of the toughest standards in the industry). Only then do they make it to our editors’ showers, bathroom counters, and makeup bags, where they’re thoroughly hand-tested (and road-tested, if we happen to be on tour). The Goop beauty department is made up of women of all ages, races, and tastes—if we really love something, we’re pretty sure you’ll love it, too.

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